6 Native Musicians Who Changed Music History
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
By Aaren Herron
The annals of music history are lined with legends of nearly boundless origins. From blues to rock, pop to folk, these six Native American musicians have left an indelible mark on music today.
John Lennon called him one of “the greatest unknowns of rock ‘n roll.” Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young all cite him among their most important early influences.
Born Frederick Lincoln Wray Jr. (May 2, 1929 – November 5, 2005) in Dunn, North Carolina, guitarist Link Wray (Shawnee) is credited with inventing the power chord in the 1950s. His raw, rockabilly sound – and particularly the iconic instrumental, “Rumble” – is considered the foundation for heavy metal and punk music.
“He is the king," Pete Townshend of The Who, said of Wray. “If it hadn't been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble, ’I would have never picked up a guitar.”
The recording of “Rumble” is as steeped in legend as Wray himself. Apparently the guitarist, unhappy with the sound coming from his amp, poked a pencil through the speaker cone to create his signature distorted sound. The song’s primitive, pounding chords, which Wray slowed to a swampy crawl, caused a national uproar – and it remains the only instrumental song to ever be banned on American radio.
Wray’s other hits include “Rawhide,” “Jack the Ripper,” and the theme song for the classic Batman TV series. His music has been featured on the soundtracks for such major films as Pulp Fiction and Independence Day.
Jamie Royal “Robbie” Robertson (born July 5, 1943), a descendant of the Cayuga and Mohawk Native Peoples, is a singer-songwriter, guitarist, musician extraordinaire. His work with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted The Band, was vital to the creation of the American Music genre.
Robertson was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Canada’s Walk of Fame and is ranked 59th in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix (November 27,1942 - September 18, 1970), was a member of the Cherokee Nation. As a singer, musician, and songwriter, Hendrix would play for a countless number of bands before settling on his own first and only number 1 album The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix was the highest-paid performer of his time and was one of the first guitarists to use tone-altering effects in mainstream rock.
Though his career lasted a very short time, Hendrix is considered to be one of the single most influential musicians in the 20th century. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame described him as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie (born February 20,1941) is a member of the Piapot Cree Nation. She is best known for her work on facing the issues faced by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas through her music and writing.
Sainte-Marie has been recognized and won various awards and honors throughout her career and, in 1983, Sainte-Marie became the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar for her song “Up Where We Belong.”
Moving away from the individual, Redbone is made up of Mexican American and Native American band members. This heritage was reflected greatly in the production of their music, stage presence, and album art.
Redbone reached Top 5 on the U.S Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1974, with a single that was certified Gold, making them the first Native American band to reach the Billboard Hot 100. They would then be inducted into the Native American Music Association Hall of Fame in 2008, alongside the NY Smithsonian in 2013.
Cary Morin is a member of the Crow Nation and has been described as one of the greatest acoustic pickers to play the guitar. Having played various celebrated venues across rock history (including the 2010 Vancouver Olympics), Morin has won countless awards for blues, rock, and folk music alone. Morin has a tally of nearly a dozen awards in 2013/14 alone, including a Lifetime achievement award from Fort Collins Music Association.
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